Aug 24, 2021 | Eran Lerman
A tragic event of great symbolic importance is now upon us. Despite a deliberate press blackout, the US Biden Administration could not avoid the long, sad shadow of “the last helicopter from Saigon” which now also exemplifies the fate of Afghanistan.
The Taliban has marched into Kabul, and while it wisely let the Americans leave safely, it is bound to slaughter those left behind who stood against it; once again enslave women and deny all education to girls; and re-institute the horrors of its pre-2001 regime, in the name of its interpretation of Shari’ah law.
If the perception of an Islamist ascendancy takes hold, the implications for the region, and for the world, are liable to be profound.
Twenty years ago, the “Global War on Terror” seemed to get off to a promising start. Taliban rule in Afghanistan was quickly overthrown at what was at the time a minimal cost: the Americans, their allies, and the Afghans of the Northern Alliance seemed to be welcomed as liberators.
But Afghanistan, which had frustrated the British conquerors in the 19th century and did much to undo Soviet power in the 20th, turned out to be easier to conquer than to reform. Tribalism, corruption, poor governance, abject poverty, virulent variations of Islamist extremism – all added up to a toxic mix that no amount of American firepower, creative energy, and piles of public money (the full cost of the “longest war” is estimated at US$2,000,000,000,000) could fix. President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out is thus understandable. But this does not lessen the anticipated consequences of the fall of Kabul.
The direct strategic impact of what happens in Afghanistan, landlocked between Pakistan, central Asia, and Iran, may be limited. It is safe to assume that the Taliban would at first be wary, for a while, about hosting global terror networks such as al-Qaeda – the cost to it in 2001 had been too high. But over time, Afghanistan may yet again become a hub of terror.
Meanwhile, at the level of symbolism, namely the sense that “the arc of history” now bends towards Islamist victories, the imprint of the scenes from Kabul may be devastating. The consequence for regional stability could be severe; and vulnerable regimes may feel the need to cast their lot with the winners, or even look to Iran for shelter.
What Can Washington Do?
This damage in the world of perceptions will not be easily undone.
The scope of the brutal acts that would follow the Taliban’s victorious entry into Kabul were painfully predictable. As former US allies are executed in a public way, and women are relegated back to servitude, the message to the rest of the Muslim world, and beyond it, could be quite dangerous. Has the West, and specifically the US, become what the prophet Isaiah called “a broken reed”?
To counter this impact as much as possible, it would be vital for the US to demonstrate – elsewhere, since the Afghan case is clearly beyond salvation – that it is not a spent force. It would also be of decisive significance to reassure traditional US allies, including Israel and other like-minded forces of stability in the region. This would require not only proactive diplomacy at the highest level, but also actions that would reassert the American commitment to their security and survival.
Central to any such demonstration, given what we witnessed in Afghanistan, would be the way the US (assisted by its key allies, Britain and France) deals with Iran’s defiant conduct. Provocations at sea; rocket fire by proxy into Saudi Arabia and Israel; regional subversion; and a rapidly advancing military nuclear project – all these require a robust response, not abject surrender at the nuclear deal negotiating table in Vienna.
True, the Afghan debacle on one hand, and the Iranian challenge on the other, are different in nature and only marginally related to each other. But the timing in which both may come together makes it even more important for the US to use this opportunity to reverse the image of decline.
The Need for Regional Cohesion
One of the keys to the survival of the pro-Western forces in southeast Asia, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, had been their ability to come together – despite deep historical differences and grievances – in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was created in 1967 but was given its present form and functions only by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 1976. It was only during the mid-1990s, after the Soviet collapse, that Communist former enemies, including Vietnam, queued up to join it.
To some extent, despite the obvious differences, this can serve as a general template for those Middle East nations who fear the consequences of American retreat. The Abraham Accords already reflect, in many of their overt and underlying aspects, this need to “hang together”.
In addition to the highly proactive UAE (and the quietly persuasive work of the King of Jordan), it would be Saudi Arabia and Egypt who must take the lead in organising the response. This would be a good point in time for Riyadh to cross the threshold into open relationship with Israel – and to collect its reward for it in Washington.
As for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his powerful message to the scholars of al-Azhar Islamic University on Jan. 1 2015 (which they have yet to respond to in a coherent way) remains the most lucid clarion call against the scourge of Islamist totalitarian radicalism which has swept the Muslim world. His position should be propagated and upheld by other like-minded nations (it is bound to be reviled and rejected, however, by Recep Tayip Erdogan’s Turkey and its ally, Qatar).
As external anchors of such a regional response – given the doubts about America’s role, which will not fade away soon even if the Biden Administration does take firm action – work should be done to bring in both France and India. Both have taken firm stands against Islamist radicalism; both have a vested interest in the outcome; and both already have strong bilateral and multilateral associations with players in the region.
Obviously, Israel cannot be the arbiter in intra-Muslim conflicts: but nor is it a bystander. Israel has a vested interest in stemming the tide of both Sunni and Shi’ite radicalism; and in proving its utility to partners across the region, from the UAE to Morocco. Israeli diplomacy should place the cementing of these bonds near the top of its priorities, alongside the Iranian question. Military actions in the context of the “Campaign between the Wars” (a term for Israeli attacks on Iranian forces and proxies, especially in Syria) are also part of the equation, both in terms of their impact on the adversary and of their message to Israel’s friends.
The same is true for the way in which Israel will deal with Hamas rule in Gaza – which until Kabul fell was the only area in the region under the uncontested rule of a Sunni Islamist regime. Practical solutions to the humanitarian problems in the Strip, and a tough negotiation to retrieve the hostages and the bodies of Israel’s soldiers, are one thing. A political licence for Hamas to appear as the victor in the ideological struggle with the non-Islamist variant of Palestinian nationalism – i.e., the Palestinian Authority – is another matter. In close coordination with Egypt, this kind of outcome must be avoided even if Israel may seem to run the risk of resumed hostilities.
Ultimately, it may be in Lebanon – and in action against Iran – that Israel’s ability to turn the tide will be tested.
These will be decisions driven by other considerations, ultimately determined by the rate of progress of Iran’s military nuclear project. But at the same time, in other aspects of Israeli policy, the possible impact of the dark days that lie ahead should be considered.
First and foremost, intensive intelligence sharing with like-minded forces, and informational cooperation in stemming the spread of the Islamist creed, should be a key element of the joint regional and international response. The stakes are high, and the time to prepare is now.